Time marches on and the Emerald season wraps up its 17th summer meet – yes, there was that once off winter meet in 1996 – with a strong sense of gratitude to its growing base of loyal fans. Loyalty may well be the key word to the success of our industry in the northwest that has had to weather the storms of national economic decline, regional isolation, reduced field size and ongoing competition from gaming.
Despite these concerns, the show must go on and it did with many memorable moments. Here are my top 10, what are yours?
1. Magnificent MARIO: Not only did Mario Gutierrez win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in his first attempt with I’ll Have Another, he did exactly the same thing on Taylor Said in the Longacres Mile in a stirring stretch duel. His autograph sessions with fans reflected his modesty and humility, character traits that are not a given with celebrity jockeys. Chances are, his upbringing and his northwest foundation had much to do with it and it was great to see the team that has supported him in Glenn Todd, Troy Taylor and Mike Puhich take center stage on Mile Day.
2. The hunger for MUNGER - The green and white silks of owner, trainer and breeder Don Munger had graced the winners circle a record 19 times at the time of this blog. At age 88 – the lucky Chinese number – this veteran put up numbers like never before. His stable proved the worth of stallion Nacheezmo with the most promising of his off-spring Roveing Patrol, the 8-1/2 length winner of the Diane Kem Stakes on WA Cup day, sold to Kentucky Derby winning owner, Paul Reddam. A shoe-in for seasonal honors in training achievement, Don is a fine example that age is no barrier to success.
3. What a FINALE! - Not since Flying Notes 11-1/4 length 2002 Emerald Derby drubbing, has a 3-Y-O trounced a field on the Auburn oval in the manner in which Makors Finale disposed of his state-bred rivals in the Chinook Pass Stakes. His staggering 15 length margin was breathtaking earning him a fourth stakes victory in his division and numerous votes for Horse of the Meet. Owner Karl Krieg is rightfully smitten by the horse’s power and performance, already ear-marking next year’s Longacres Mile as the target. This current Derby winner is a strapping individual that looks well and truly up to the task.
4. JAVIER stakes his claim - As if the assertive rides by Javier Matias on Winning Machine in the Governors and Seattle Handicaps were not enough to prove that lightning really can strike twice. His emphatic dying strides fight-back wins on Champagneandcaviar in the Kent Handicap and WA Oaks as well as those on Mike Man’s Gold in the Premio Esmeralda and the WTBOA Lads proved that Javier had come of age, confident, daring and the leader of the pack with seven stakes victories coming into closing weekend. Arguably, one of his best rides came in the Longacres Mile as Winning Machine almost clawed his way back to level terms, superb in defeat.
5. It’s KUBINOVA time! - The early trend of long shot plays coming home under apprentice rider Eliska Kubinova soon became an established pattern throughout the season. Eliska won 74 thoroughbred races and comfortably surpassed the previous record number of wins by an apprentice rider in an Emerald Downs meet set at 70 by Cassie Papineau in 2009. Her ability to get run out of lower claiming horses that had been inconsistent appeared to reflect her sit and wait tactics, saving a little for the end where possible. Her Czech roots added a welcome international dimension to our jockey colony, once again illustrating how fertile a region the northwest is in developing talented female riders.
6. Number “JUAN”. - At no stage of the 2012 season did Juan Gutierrez falter on his march toward his first Emerald Downs riding title. The two times Longacres Mile winner came under a little pressure mid-season from defending champion Leslie Mawing but quickly opened a widening gap back up over his competitors and never looked back with over 110 winners and counting. Juan has always been the quiet achiever. His command of the Emerald oval makes him a reliable choice with top barns such as Tom Wenzel and Jim Penney and he delivered for them, especially on Class Included, the queen of the older fillies division, adding three more stakes victories. His polish both on and off the track made him a most deserved title holder. Juan really is number one!
7. Tom ‘PAX’ them in! - This season more than most, the predominantly black classic silks of Jerre Paxton’s Northwest Farms signaled quality whenever they appeared. Under the precise care of trainer Tom Wenzel, rapidly becoming the elite barn on the grounds, it was a delight to see horses with a touch of brilliance. Youngsters Stopshoppingdebbie, Goin to the Window, Blueberry Smoothie and Finallygotabentley each flashed great potential. At three years of age, Exclusive Diva tore through the first two stakes in her division, giving up grudgingly when game runner-up on the stretch outs in the latter two. Several Northwest Farms horses would hold their own on larger circuits and we are lucky to have them all race here.
8. LUC-warm? Hardly. - It really is a testament to Frank Lucarelli that it was somehow just assumed that he would have another great season. The defending champion has led the trainer standings from the start and holds a three win advantage over 10 times champion Tim McCanna, coming into the final three days. One of the keys to securing a title is eking multiple wins out of your runners and Frank has managed to do that, with Hard Slider, a good example. His influx of Golden Gate shippers added to the spread across the classes, another important ingredient in maintaining a live barn to the end.
9. Nothing like a good KNAPP! - Another veteran trainer who held great stats all meet was Neil Knapp. With 23 wins on the board entering closing weekend and a 50% in the money strike rate, Neil proved especially effective on the sprint-to-route angle, successfully stretching his sprint winners at the first time of asking going long. In the process, handicappers were offered great value on his horses. Valid Vixen Queen landed him a restricted stakes victory and his barn helped Leslie Mawing to a memorable 2000 win milestone via Grand Baylee.
10. Who’s the MAN that holds court? - Ten year-old Wasserman adding a 12th Emerald Downs win on August 10th may well have been his racing highlight for the season yet for fans it was his appearance at the end of that month in the paddock at the Emerald AM morning workout show. Owner/trainer Howard Belvoir was gracious in making the offer to the track to have his aging star available to adoring fans but few could have envisioned that that morning, they would get a chance to get a leg up on the 2008 Longacres Mile winner himself. Wasserman held center stage for a good half hour and it is a testament to his team that includes Jennifer Whitaker and Vicki Potter that he has such an endearing disposition. The morning show was reminiscent of the West Seattle Boy retirement ceremony in which Emerald’s winningest horse made a similarly grand AM appearance thanks to his dedicated connections.
Now it’s your turn?